When A.J. Jacobs, the best-selling author and Esquire editor at large, started researching his family tree, he realized that he had begun to sense a connection with relations in even the most distant branches. For instance, he now felt irrationally warm toward Judge Judy, his seventh cousin three times removed—once an unpleasant TV personality, now part of the family.
America’s obsession with genealogy, given a jump-start by Silicon Valley startups and new online platforms, has the potential to rework how we feel about inheritance, race, and family itself. But like all America’s digital progress, it brings with it serious concerns about privacy and accuracy. At a Future Tense event in New York City last week, Jacobs, along with the author Maud Newton; Chris Whitten, the CEO of the collaborative family history site WikiTree; and genealogist Wilhelmina Rhodes Kelly discussed their experiences exploring their family histories, and their concerns about where the technology could take us.
Jacobs suggested that two broad technical drivers are guiding the “new family tree.” The first is the Internet. Now you can put your family tree on collaborative genealogy sites like WikiTree, for example, and if it overlaps with another family tree, you can merge it until it becomes essentially an “Amazonian rain forest of relatives,” as he put it—raising the possibility that a global family tree is not too far in the future. (This is the spark behind Jacobs’ latest project, the Global Family Reunion.)The other significant contributors are companies like the controversial startup 23andMe that make affordable home genetic tests that can reveal your ethnic makeup, among other personal markers.
Although technology is changing the way we discover our personal histories, the reasons why people may begin to investigate in the first place have stayed the same. Curiosity, of course, but also a sense of history. Newton told the audience how her interest in her family tree was sparked by the improbable stories her mother told about their predecessors. But the importance of ancestry cut very close for Newton. “I myself was basically a eugenics project,” she said. “My parents married because they thought they would have smart children together, not because they loved each other.” Her father was particularly obsessed with the idea of purity of blood, she added. “Someone suggested to me that there might be something [my father] was hiding, and then I got really interested.” What she found is a not uncommon story in the United States: She had distant relatives who were black, descended from her slave-owning ancestors.
Sensitivities around our sense of family and race make technology’s impact on genealogy particularly fraught. New genetic tests, in particular, have the potential to show us that clear demarcations of ethnicity are basically a myth. This style of “new genealogy” shows that we’re all intertwined—it could really have a democratizing effect, Jacobs suggested. Still, perhaps we should hesitate before adding to these online banks of family information and DNA that may be vulnerable to hacks and improper commercial use. There are concerns about the accuracy of new collaborative genealogy platforms to be sure, but as Whitten put it, “I would be more worried about having your whole genome made public.”
There are plenty of incidents in history where tests that revealed things about ethnicity and genetics were used in nefarious ways. It’s also hard to know what will be projected onto personal markers in the future, Newton suggested. “I’m female and I identify as a woman, so that’s not something someone can disagree with if that information gets out there.” But that’s not the case for everyone. Or to extrapolate further into the future use of DNA, “If I do something terrible and get arrested, then what about everyone related to me?” she asked. “We would say nothing, but as culture changes, these questions have different answers.”
The disclosure of our most intimate information could also have a more prosaic impact. “Imagine if you’re on Match.com and you can see [that your object of interest] doesn’t have the monogamy gene—would you go out with them?” Jacobs asked. Such concerns, combined with the industry’s lack of regulation, points to trouble down the line. “You’d be crazy to put your DNA in those databases,” Newton said. “And I’ve done it three times.” When technology indulges our desire to know more about ourselves, perhaps curiosity will always outweigh caution.
Listen to “How Technology Is Changing the Family Tree” below: